Why do people need government department websites?
This is the second in a series of posts about how I am taking forward objective two of the single domain project: specifically the “private beta test of a shared ‘corporate’ publishing platform aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments”. By corporate, we mean the parts of the government web estate – currently accessed through separate domain names such as bis.gov.uk, dh.gov.uk and number10.gov.uk – which describe the aims and purpose of government’s various organisations, explain in detail the work they do, and provide information about how they are doing it for transparency and accountability.
This post is about the needs the beta version of the corporate publishing platform will be designed to meet, and how I have gone about answering two deceptively simple questions:
- Why do government organisations have corporate websites? and,
- What do people want when they visit them?
But before we dive into why and what, I first need to give you sense of how many and who.
How many people are using these sites?
Lots. The average monthly unique visitors to central government’s current corporate sites range from 3,000 (lowest) to 4.3 million (highest). Crudely, this puts the total audience at about 12 million people – not counting the websites of agencies and other arms-length bodies, many of who dwarf their parent departments (think, for example, of the Met Office). A high proportion of visits are from repeat users – about 40%. Users are highly engaged, clicking an average of 4 times per visit. (Hat tip to Adam Bailin for these numbers).
Who are these people?
Everyone. Visitors to government’s corporate sites are best described as “people who are professionally or personally interested in the work or workings of government” – more of a mode than a demographic. There’s unsurprisingly a bias towards the professionally interested: traffic falls away in the evenings and weekends.
While broad grouping is possible, visitors defy neat categorisation. Surveys of users of these sites tend to throw up a lot of “others”. To give you a flavour, here’s how 10 users (picked entirely at random) described themselves in recent surveys by the Ministry of Justice and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Ministry of Justice
- Neighbourhood watch development officer
- Forensic scientist
- Partner of prisoner
- Claimant in insolvency case
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
- HR advisor in the NHS
- Further education compliance officer
- Board member of a third sector organisation
- Local government officer
Making sense of the long tail of needs
With such a variety of people interested in such a variety of subjects, it was clear early on I’d have to take a more coarse-grained approach to identifying user needs than has been done for the citizen-facing part of the domain. A fine-grain study à la (brilliant) Needotron 5000 would have bogged me down in analysis paralysis and made delivery by early 2012 impossible.
In any case, coarse granularity makes good sense here. My goal in this exercise was to establish the needs that would be met by formats for content as opposed to the content itself. My immediate job is to create the right shelves; later I will work with Departments to stock them, and during that time we will need to think carefully about the why and who for for every item we add (and subsequently update or remove).
I also chose – unsurprisingly given my background – to study government’s motives for their corporate websites, as a check on how compatible they are with what users expect, and because pragmatically I need to meet both sets of needs if this thing is going to be a hit.
So I set about gathering just enough data to meet those objectives and no more, asking Whitehall’s webbies to send me their:
- Search keyword data, web analytics, user surveys and research insights (everything they’ve got on who comes to their sites and what they are looking for)
- Website strategy documents, propositions and KPIs (any documented thinking from the departments about the goals, audiences and success measures for their sites)
I got 70 documents back, speed-read the lot, and distilled them into separate lists of user needs and government goals. I ran the results past digital leaders in departments for a sense check and arranged for a second pair of eyes (the fabulous Mo Brooks in COI) to clean up the duplicates and group them into themes.
I hesitate to put any spin on the results, but would like to share just three observations that jumped out at me during the process. Your mileage may vary.
- Users want the latest stuff. As I flicked through search keywords, most viewed pages and stated reasons for visiting, it felt overwhelmingly the case that users of corporate sites are looking for information about recent announcements.
- They also want really specific stuff that’s current (as distinct from recent), and are looking for it by generic search terms (e.g. from DECC: “energy efficiency”), by document titles (“climate change act 2008”) or named initiatives (“renewable heat incentive”).
- There’s a two-way relationship between users and government officials which corporate sites could do much more to support. Where user and government needs align neatly (e.g. understand/explain, influence/consult, stay informed/announce) and where they don’t (hold to account/get positive PR, lobby/campaign), there is a tacit negotiation and a desire to influence behaviour in both directions. If the single domain were to support this better, it would need to become more of a conduit for policymakers and their audiences to engage in dialogue and open exchange of information, to foster a better understanding of each other’s wants and needs.
The next step with this work is to map needs to formats – which we’ve started on now – and to keep iterating these lists as we develop and test the beta product with users.
Thoughts? Questions? Needs you think we’ve missed? All comments welcome as ever.
Neil Williams is product owner for the corporate departmental publishing platform in the single domain project, on loan to the Government Digital Service from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.